World building 101

Good characters and settings require an extensive history

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Writing a story is, at a minimum, creating a life. Your main character, to be a real person, has to have fears, talents, an Achilles heel, past traumas, perhaps a criminal record, an education, a coming-of-age experience, relationships, a job, relatives, maybe pets, hobbies, friends and enemies, likes and dislikes, annoying habits, desires, medical conditions, blindspots, savings, tools, and a host of other attributes, facets, and accoutrement.

This doesn’t apply only to novels. Even characters in flash fiction and short stories should have this level of depth. They may and perhaps should inform plot. They make it easier for readers to get hooked on your story.

A New Project

I finished a first draft of a short story this week. It’s another for my projected collection on robot-human relationships titled “Mrs. Babbage’s Home for Wayward Robots.” This one is called “Where the Children Sleep,” and it centers on a Puerto Rican mother searching for her kidnapped son with the aid of a medical robot, Emaytu.

So I needed a new project to work on. The opera is slowly developing. My requiem hit a snag in the movement I decided to tackle next. I still can’t bring myself to write the next scene in my new novel. A new short story seemed like a good alternative.

I haven’t written any straight-out fantasy in a long time, so I decided to give that a shot again. I decided it would be set in a world where magic was commonplace, but almost always occurred as a specialty. I wanted my main character to be at the bottom of the magical hierarchy (or at least perceived that way), and I thought a necromancer would likely fill the bill.

I’m not certain about the plot yet, so I’ve spent a couple of days just thinking first about what the life of a necromancer would be like, and that quickly led me to put it in an imagined context of magic workers being one of a variety of professions. Among the magic workers, there might be labor unions and affinity groups. There might be partnerships and joint ventures. Educational programs. Prejudice.

What happened before the story starts?

Quickly, I found myself drawn to what a necromancer’s life would be like as a child. How early and in what ways would her or his ability manifest? How would it affect diet, sex, sleep, health? Would the fledgling necromancer go through stages of development in that skill, and might those go on into adulthood?

I usually lead with a plot idea when I develop stories, so teasing out a plot from character details is a bit more difficult for me. I’m prewriting the plot now (see more on this: The Prewriting Challenge), and so far, my subconscious has zeroed in on the idea that a necromancer has to provide a corpse with life force to reanimate it, and the supply has to come from somewhere, and if not a sacrifice of someone or something else, then it has to come from the necromancer, and at some point the demands for instilling life into a dead body for as long as needed might seriously drain his or her own resources.

I’m open to the idea that the history and profile I developed of this new character and her or his world will offer more clues about significant plot points, but for now, my mind seems more preoccupied with building out the world: time wizards and oracles who are powerful and elite but hard to track down and almost as hard to decipher, geomancers who are frustrated artists and want to sculpt but keep having to pay bills by digging pits and erecting buildings, and dead people that resent being reawakened.

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